Look out, L'Oréal: Whales play with seaweed to exfoliate their skin
Play is an important part of animal behavior, helping diverse species form social structures and bonds, develop cognitive function and enhance physical abilities. Yet human understanding of how other animals play is not well understood. Now, scientists have found that a baleen whale’s penchant for tossing seaweed around may be providing a much more specific service than just a prop for social playtime among the pod.
“The use of objects by cetaceans like baleen whales is well known, and their ability to interact with their environment in complex behaviors has been previously reported on,” said Olaf Meynecke, from the Coastal and Marine Research Centre at Griffin University. “But baleen whales, including humpback whales, are less often observed to perform object use, and this behavior might be more common than previously thought.”
The act of “kelping", in which whales, predominantly humpbacks, will lift seaweed up onto their rostrum, has been observed off the coast of Australia, the US and Canada. Drone footage has now also revealed that migratory pods will seek out seaweed patches and ‘play’ with it for up to an hour at a time. The researchers believe that the play could be secondary to another use: such as the sturdy seaweed being used to scrape off dead skin cells, lice, barnacles and other parasites prone to hitching a ride on the massive migratory mammals.
Scientists have previously documented whales rolling in sandy substrates, potentially as a way for them to shift dead skin cells and parasites during migration. The animals continually shed dead epidermal cells as they swim, until they’re in waters near Antarctica. It’s here where their skin regeneration slows and they risk a buildup of harmful bacteria. As they return to warmer waters, getting a helpful scrub from some convenient seaweed would be an efficient way to speed up nature.
"There are two plausible theories: play and/or self-medication with seaweed,” Meynecke said. “This behavior may be playful but could also serve additional benefits in the context of learning and socializing, as well as ectoparasite removal and skin treatment by using brown algae’s antibacterial properties.”
The team analyzed more than 100 documented interactions with seaweed, involving 163 baleen whales. Humpbacks were the biggest fans, accounting for 95 separate events, followed by gray whales (2), southern right whales (2) and northern right whales (1).
Interestingly, adults engaged with seaweed more than juveniles; among those able to be identified, adults made up 53% of the interactions, with calves at just 14%. This also offers clues into how this behavior serves another purpose. And the behavior was strikingly similar across different species and geographic regions.
However, when it comes to skincare, it seems the whales may have got the jump on this discovery.
The research was published in the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering.
Source: Griffith University